by Lye Tuck-Po
20 September 2023
Dragging the hose for irrigation purposes. Cambodia, 2006
This is a photo of my host mother Yi in Cambodia, photographed while she was working in her maize field (2006). The Cambodian women I knew worked very hard, and were extremely creative at looking for ways to supplement their income.
For my host family, maize was their major source of cash income. They grew several varieties of rice as well, but mainly kept the rice for home consumption or ritual offerings.
Observers often note that Cambodian women enjoy relatively high status (e.g. Andaya 2006); I would concur. Women not only worked damned hard; they were also household managers who control all the money that flows in. I remember asking my field assistant what he was going to do with his salary: "send it to my mother!" was his answer.
Couple working in the maize field, Cambodia, 2006
But I also admired my host father (above picture). In many ways, the couple worked as a team, his-and-her activities in balance, complementing each other.
*** I have to shake my head at the photo - what a terrible photographer I was. What was in my mind — why the slanted framing???
Walking in the forest. Batek at Yong, 2010
This is a photo of na'Kesok walking in the forest—she's probably my best Batek friend. Batek women, similarly, have high status—the society is sexually and politically egalitarian— and women have a strong sense of self. Very energetic and influential; not at all passive. Accounts of the impacts of development frequently make this point: that development, with its promotion of modernist ideals of “family”, may jeopardize rather than improve the status of women. There are many structural ways in which this is done—for example, income-generation opportunities for women tend to be more limiting than for men; or men rather than women are listed as household “heads” thus concentrating “wealth” (such as it is) in the hands of male household members, and so on.
Senior Penan women exchanging news: the one on the right has been away for some time. Long Jek, Sarawak, 2009
Penan grandmother and granddaughter: the granddaughter spent most of her time in another location and has come back to see the old folks. Long Wat, Sarawak, 2009
Among Penan, men do most of the heavy work (for example, see here) but women's work is also integral to household economies (for example, in their craftwork, women do most of the weaving). However, money frequently moves from men to men, and women may not have full control over how incomes are distributed. Although Penan are relatively egalitarian as well, there are inherent asymmetries in the division of labour. Development projects may accentuate rather than erase these divisions.
** In contrast to how they were reported earlier (e.g. Brosius 1987), Penan women have become more mobile. The young woman in the photo above, for example, had gone visiting relatives in several places quite far from her home. I think I met several women who had gone as far as Kuching. How mobility affects gender status: having the freedom, for example, to search out opportunities, then bringing their new insights back to the longhouse.
Boys, boys, boys. Their parents were off-camera; we were. talking when the boys came by. Penan community, Long Wat, Sarawak, 2009